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ben volin | on football

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s remarkable career continues with another start vs. Patriots Sunday

Only one quarterback has made more starts against Bill Belichick's Patriots than Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Only one quarterback has made more starts against Bill Belichick's Patriots than Ryan Fitzpatrick.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The 2005 NFL quarterback draft class has held up remarkably well. Aaron Rodgers became a bona fide superstar, and Alex Smith has had a long, successful career, including an inspiring comeback from injury. Matt Cassel, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, and Derek Anderson all had fine careers.

The 14th and final quarterback drafted that year isn’t doing too badly, either. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the kid from Harvard drafted 250th out of 255 players, will begin his 16th NFL season Sunday when the Dolphins visit the Patriots. The game will be Fitzpatrick’s 140th career start.

“It’s not something I take for granted,” Fitzpatrick, 37, said this week. “It’s why I love the game so much. I’m honored and I’m really excited to be able to lead this team out there on Sunday.”

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‘“It’s not something I take for granted. It’s why I love the game so much. I’m honored and I’m really excited to be able to lead this team out there on Sunday.”’

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick probably will never hear his name in the conversation for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he has had one of the more remarkable NFL careers of the past two decades.

Fitzpatrick is the rare seventh-round pick who made it 16 seasons, yet he has never quite “made it.” He is the only quarterback to throw a touchdown pass for eight different teams. And in 15 NFL seasons, he has not played in a single playoff game. Fitzpatrick’s record as a starter is 55-83-1, for a 39.9 winning percentage.

But it’s hard not to love Fitzpatrick. He’s “The Amish Rifle,” a gunslinger with a long beard and a penchant for interceptions. His career passer rating is a just-good-enough 81.6.

And Fitzpatrick is the heart and soul of a Dolphins team that hopes to compete for the playoffs in Year 2 under coach Brian Flores. Fitzpatrick won over his teammates last year, leading the Dolphins to five gutsy wins toward the end of the season, including a shocking 27-24 win over the Patriots in Week 17.

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Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick is prepared to beard the Patriots in their own den again Sunday.
Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick is prepared to beard the Patriots in their own den again Sunday.Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards, and went right at the Patriots' best player, cornerback Stephon Gilmore. He went up and down the field all game on the eventual NFL Defensive Player of the Year, connecting eight times for 137 yards to DeVante Parker.

Fitzpatrick then threw the back-breaking, game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki with 24 seconds left, essentially ruining the Patriots' season.

The win left the Dolphins' record at 5-11, but it was hardly meaningless. They triumphantly carried Fitzpatrick off the field — or rather, Fitzpatrick gave safety Walt Aikens a piggyback ride off the field as the two howled in delight.

“Fitz embodies everything we’re looking for in a Dolphin,” Flores said. “He loves to play. He’s competitive. You can feel his energy on the field in practice and games. He’s got leadership. Guys gravitate to him and follow him. I think that’s kind of why he’s had success throughout his entire career.”

Tua Tagovailoa, drafted fifth overall, eventually will be the Dolphins' quarterback. But no one in that organization seems eager to move on from Fitzpatrick yet.

When the Dolphins looked for a new offensive coordinator this offseason, they hired Chan Gailey, who was Fitzpatrick’s coach for three of his best years in Buffalo and two years with the Jets.

“His leadership is unbelievable,” Gailey said. “His understanding of the game is right up there with the best. He understands not only what we’re trying to do, but he understands what the defense is trying to do.

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"It wasn’t necessarily that way our first year together in Buffalo; but he’s gotten to the point the last six or seven years where that’s been a real asset for him.”

Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey likes what Ryan Fitzpatrick is doing in the Dolphins' offense.
Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey likes what Ryan Fitzpatrick is doing in the Dolphins' offense.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Fitzpatrick also has been one of the Patriots' most common opponents. Sunday’s game will mark his 14th against Belichick as Patriots coach, breaking a tie with Ben Roethlisberger for second-most. Only Peyton Manning (24) has faced Belichick more. Chad Pennington faced Belichick 11 times, and Joe Flacco nine.

Fitzpatrick is just 3-10 in his career against the Patriots, with 265 passing yards per game, 21 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, and an 80.5 passer rating. There were some brutal losses in there, too: 34-3 with Buffalo, 41-3 with the Jets, and 43-0 with Miami, among others.

But Fitzpatrick’s three victories against the Patriots were fairly epic: a 34-31 win for Buffalo in 2011, a 26-20 overtime win for the Jets in 2015, and the 27-24 win for Miami last year.

“We have a lot of respect for what he can do and how well he’s done it, and can still do it,” Belichick said. “He’s a little unpredictable, so that just makes it a little more difficult to defend because of his versatility, and his ability with confidence to attack weaknesses that the defense presents.”

Ryan Fitzpatrick scrambles for a first down against the Patriots last December.
Ryan Fitzpatrick scrambles for a first down against the Patriots last December.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Fitzpatrick is the same age as many of his coaches, and everyone in the Dolphins locker room looks up to him. When Fitzpatrick’s mother died unexpectedly two weeks ago, the entire team hurt along with him.

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“'Fitz is just a wholesome person,” Tagovailoa said. “I mean, what you see out there is really who Fitz is. He’s a coach. He’s a mentor on and off the field. But he’s also a very, very family-oriented person. Very loving. Very caring for guys. And he’s funny, too. He’s really funny.”

Fitzpatrick has been the perfect bridge quarterback for the Dolphins, but he hopes he can stave off the Tagovailoa era as long as possible. After a strong finish last year and several free agent upgrades, the Dolphins are thinking playoffs with Fitzpatrick at the helm.

“Raised expectations is relative since the expectations last year were probably zero, right?” he quipped. “There’s definitely a different feeling right now than there was last year at this exact time.

"I think right now there’s a great vibe in the building. Everybody is pulling in the same direction right now. I think I know what we have here.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin